Getting Firle off oil
A new project is working to enable the village of Firle near Lewes to stop being dependent on oil for heating – and will be inviting local people to get involved in a community share offer to help make it happen. Ann Link investigates.
The way we heat our buildings is one of the UK’s key contributions to the climate crisis, and is one of the most complex challenges to solve in a way that’s fair and affordable to residents. Like many country areas, the village of Firle is not connected to the gas grid. That means most of its properties are heated using Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) or heating oil – both of which contribute to climate change and degrade local air quality.
A vital task in the fight against climate change, therefore, is to see how such communities can be transitioned off LPG or oil and onto cleaner energy sources in a way that’s practical and affordable (especially given the predominance of fuel poverty in areas off the gas grid). We’ve already reported on a project to do this in Barcombe involving community energy company Ovesco. In the case of Firle, it’s Brighton & Hove Energy Services Co-op (BHESCo) that has taken up the challenge.
Focusing on Firle village
BHESCo is based in Brighton but active over a wider area. It began the initiative in Firle in 2017 by approaching the Estate Manager of the Firle Estate with a proposal for a feasibility project on how to ‘decarbonise heat’ for the village. It was able to obtain grant funding from the Rural Community Energy Fund to conduct the study.
Initially the project is focusing on Firle village centre, with a view to expanding across the whole village later. The centre contains 66 dwellings, of which a majority are owned by Firle Estate. The large house, Firle Place, is not included. Businesses include the Ram Inn, Burning Sky Brewery, Firle Post Office and Edgar’s Stained Glass. The church was included in the scope of the work earlier on but is not part of current plans.
BHESCo has engaged extensively with the community, building relationships with residents and learning their views on the project. The village has an active Net Zero carbon emissions committee and people are very supportive of the project, provided it can demonstrate affordability and convenience.
Alternatives to oil
In terms of what to use instead of oil/LPG to heat Firle’s homes, BHESCo initially looked at creating a shared heat network with properties in the south-eastern part of the village connected to a single biomass boiler. However, residents expressed opposition to biomass during public engagement meetings and consultations. In addition, the cost of the wood fuel was prohibitive to making the project work economically.
Focus then shifted to designing a heating alternative comprising a combination of air-source and ground-source heat pumps, which can be installed on a property-by-property basis without the need to interrupt traffic flows or cause any long-term significant disruption. Although the lack of consistent and reliable government support for heat decarbonisation has required changes to the proposed model, this is the solution that BHESCo is now looking to trial in Firle.
A core aspect of BHESCo’s approach is its emphasis on the need to improve the energy efficiency of properties before any renewable energy technologies can be installed. To ensure that clean energy alternatives can deliver a reliable and affordable supply of heat, it is therefore looking to ensure that heat loss and inefficiencies are minimised in each property first through insulation, draught-proofing and so on.
Next steps – the Firle Village community share offer
As at July 2021, BHESCo are finalising the legal and contractual agreements with the Firle Estate and relevant contractors. They are also finalising permission to connect the heat pumps to the electricity network.
The next step is to launch a community share offer to begin work on a first group of seven properties in the village. These seven properties will act as a demonstrator pilot with the intention of replicating the success to all properties in the village.
The community share offer will aim to raise £215,000. This will be BHESCo’s fifth community share offer, which will serve as a forerunner for decarbonising the rest of the village. The target interest rate is scheduled to be 3%pa.
As BHESCo itself says, the share offer is an opportunity to transform a rural community in Sussex into a shining example of low-carbon living, where all properties are as energy efficient possible, and each home is heated from 100% renewable sources.
Given that there are thousands of rural towns and villages in England in the same situation, BHESCo is keen that the project in Firle becomes a replicable solution that can be easily adopted by other communities. Success in Firle, plus the knowledge gained to scale up activities, could have far-reaching impact on reaching the UK’s carbon reduction goals.
Anyone interested in investing in the upcoming Firle Village Share Offer can find out more at: www.bhesco.co.uk/firle/